Rec.: Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

Patti Smith, now in her late 60s, began as a punk singer and celebrity of in the 60s and 70s, who blossomed into a noted writer and is still rocking, a cult personality. Her career is also interesting because of her long relationship, as roommate and partner, with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 43, was one of the most dramatic photographic artists of that time. His signature work was large-scale, highly stylized black and white photography that encompassed an array of subjects including celebrity portraits, male and female nudes, self-portraits and still-life images of flowers. His most controversial work depicted the homosexual/S&M) underground scene.

Patti Smith played the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side the other night, a cult cultural event, but I read about it in The New Yorker a day late. The show would have been sold out anyway. She has a new book, “M Train,” that’s not getting great reviews but her “Just Kids” (2010) won a National Book Award. It’s part autobiography part history part novel of back in the day, especially her relationship with Mapplethorpe as she nurtured him, and vice versa, in their development as artists and personalities.

As a jazz guy, I missed Patti Smith the first time around (and for several decades thereafter), much as I overlooked or ignored Bob Dylan (but not Joan Baez), Carole King (but not Janis Joplin), Willie Nelson and Pete Seeger (but not The Weavers). Ditto for Andy Warhol and his crowd (Patti Smith was a member in good standing), although I read about them in the papers and it seemed like great fun.

Smith is known as the “punk poet laureate.” Her best-known song is “Because the Night”, which she co-wrote with the young Bruce Springsteen in 1978. (1978?! So long ago. How old we’ve all become on the outside while so little has changed inside.) Smith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the French Government, of course, made her a Commander of the ordre des arts et des lettres in 2005. For those who really care about the people and the era, there’s a 2008 documentary film, “Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” which I haven’t seen.

The reviews put me off the new book, “M Train” but I ordered “Just Kids,” another attempt to catch up with American cultural history in its fullness. It’s a captivating book, as memoir (the Hotel Chelsea); as history of the subculture (e.g. Max’s Bar & Grill, “at the time when it was the social hub of the subterranean universe, when Andy Warhol passively reigned over the round table with his charismatic ermine queen, Edi Sedgewick,” p. 117); as a niche history of popular music in the transition from rock/n/roll to rock, punk and the rest; as poetic prose, full of unexpected wider cultural interests (in France, a pilgrimage to Rimbaud’s grave and museum in Charleville in 1973).

Patti Smith is not for everyone and I suppose it was ineluctable at the time that she, like so much else, escaped my attention, given who she was and who I was (“parce que cetait lui, parce que c’etait moi,” said Montaigne in the opposite meaning). But for anyone interested in the counter-culture side of the Culture Wars she’s an important reference.